Washington’s traditional approach to balancing the budget is to negotiate an agreement on a package of benefit cuts and tax increases. President Obama’s deficit commission seems likely to recommend just this strategy in December. The problem is that it never works. What happens is the tax increases get permanently adopted into law. But the spending cuts are almost never fully adopted and, even if they are, they are soon swept away in the next spendthrift budget. Then—because taxes weaken incentives to produce—the tax increases don’t raise the revenue that Congress initially projected and budgeted to spend. So the deficit reappears. In 1982, congressional Democrats promised President Ronald Reagan $3 in spending cuts for every dollar in tax increases. Reagan went to his grave waiting for those spending cuts. Then there was the budget deal in 1990, when President George H.W. Bush agreed to violate his famous campaign pledge—”Read my lips, no new taxes,” he had said in 1988—in pursuit of a balanced budget. But after the deal, the deficit increased substantially: to $290 billion in 1992 from $221 billion in 1990.
Politicians love “current services” or “baseline” budgeting for two reasons. First, it allows them to have their cake and eat it too. They can simultaneously shovel more money to interest groups while telling voters they are “cutting” spending. Second, it rigs the process in favor of bigger government. This is because lawmakers who actually propose to restrain the growth of spending can be lambasted for wanting “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts totaling “trillions of dollars” when all they’re actually proposing is to have spending grow by less than the so-called baseline. But since people in the real world use honest math rather than “current services” math, they assume that spending is being reduced next year by some large amount compared to what is being spent this year. And if the phony budget cut numbers sound too big (especially for specific programs such as Medicare or Medicaid), they sometimes conclude that it would be better to raise taxes.
Speaking of which, the same misleading process works on the revenue side of the budget. The politicians automatically get to keep whatever additional revenue is generated by population growth and higher incomes, which is not trivial since revenue in a typical year grows faster than nominal GDP. But when they do a budget deal featuring X dollars of tax increases for every Y dollars of spending cuts, the additional taxes are always on top of the revenue increases that already are occurring. And since the supposed spending cuts invariably are nothing more than reductions in planned increases, it should come as no surprise that the burden of spending always seems to increase.
Defenders of “current services” or “baseline” budgeting will respond by arguing that spending should automatically increase because of factors such as inflation and demographic change (i.e., more seniors signing up for Medicare). Indeed, they will point out that the government is legally obligated to spend more money for entitlement programs based on current law.
But that’s not the point. The issue is whether the American people are being presented with honest numbers. If the fans of big government want to argue that spending should increase by 7 percent for various reasons, they should openly and honestly explain what they are trying to do. And if they disagree with lawmakers who want spending to increase by 4 percent, they should be forthright and tell voters that “this proposal does not increase spending by enough because of…” and list the reasons why they want spending to grow even faster.
Unfortunately, deceptive budget practices in Washington are a feature, not a bug. But if you pay close attention, they are very revealing. If the President’s Deficit Reduction Commission uses “baseline” or “current services” budgeting as a benchmark for determining spending “cuts” and tax increases, that’s a good sign that the crowd in Washington wants to pull a fast one on the American people.